Better Bhutan turned an ordinary vacation into a private adventure and enriching experience
Going into it, I couldn't imagine what would fill our time in such a tiny country for 9 days. But I had faith based on our successful trip to Cambodia put together by (Better Bhutan's parent company) and I didn't do anything to prepare. I let Better Bhutan design the itinerary, and choose the hotels, sites, and restaurants. Now, I'll never take a group tour again knowing that I can have control over our time, avoid the negative effects of being in a group, and best of all, indulge and cultivate a more personal relationship with my guide and driver. Better Bhutan exceeded my expectations. Let me elaborate.
Focusing on what we like—I'm wading into my relatively-new hobby as a photographer with a specialty in people and culture and I have little interest in flora and fauna. My partner wants to enrich his religious experience where possible and cherishes his selfie-stick. In order to focus on our needs, we needed a tour company that would customize an itinerary and be open to changing it on the fly. Secondly, we needed the ability to stop the car. Better Bhutan designed an itinerary with a primary focus on maximizing cultural engagements like Bhutan's festivals—photographic extravaganzas for me and religious rituals for my partner and I to be mesmerized by and eat up. During the trip, we substituted a hike with an elementary school visit. A walk through a village earned us an invitation to drink wine in a farm house. Typically, you can't stop the bus on your own. One precious moment came when we stopped and got out to watch an archery tournament in progress. Other opportunities included stopping to capture a farmer plowing his field the old fashioned way with two oxen and a hand-held plow, people along the road and a child perched in a window. Generally, you can't photograph those moments effectively from an open vehicle window in fast motion. When my partner wanted to return to an earlier destination to re-engage with a merchant who had the best price, we split up. The driver took him back and our guide and I did a bike ride. None of this is possible on a typical group tour. Better Bhutan aimed to please and fulfilled our desires without any haggling.
Being on the road less traveled—Visiting the little known country of Bhutan is a road less traveled just for starters, but not being in a group makes it a personal adventure and gives you a chance to avoid the mass feed. I have to use a telephoto “zoom” lens to capture people before they react. I do my best to soften the blow by waving and smiling afterwards. This is less disruptive and captures people naturally, the way I want to see and remember them. The effect of a bus stopping, the group of tourists getting out and multiple cameras chasing down a monk child makes me sick to my stomach. Capturing people without you noticing is still a challenge as we certainly stand out, but groups and buses easily erase any poignant moments. In a group, you feel you are on parade. With your Better Bhutan driver and guide, you feel you are exploring and less intrusive on the world around you.
Fresh food just tastes better—Buffets are the way to efficiently feed groups and the food is designed to be bland to not offend anyone. Changing it up to satisfy our sophisticated pallets is challenging in Bhutan due to a tight control on imports. Not being in a group allowed us to be more ad hoc and get special treatment. Our Better Bhutan guide would requisition special dishes like grilled veggies from the kitchen routinely without us having to ask once he learned what we liked. He even arranged a hot pot dinner one night where we cooked at the table as the big tour group behind us was stuck with their buffet. Our tastiest Bhutanese meal came when we visited a dining room on an ad hoc break from the festival. My God, we had an actual picnic on a hillside with hot tea and yummy dishes all prepared and put into a basket! Spontaneity is a spice of life and is just not possible in a group.
Developing a relationship with your guide and driver is enriching—You need top notch people that you can converse with, are knowledgeable and express a passion for their culture. We certainly got this with Better Bhutan. We ate with our guide repeatedly. We walked along side him. We engaged with our driver who was well spoken and eager to join in. In a group tour, the tour guide is 25 steps ahead of you and you're lucky if you can hear 50% of what he's saying. Everything is scripted. We got to know our guide and he got to know us so he could make adjustments. It was a more personalized experience. Our tour ended with hugs and follow-up Facebook picture sharing plus text dialog. We didn't need a continuous feed of typical tourist stimuli to keep us entertained. Aside from my photography, our guide and driver were also a main ingredient and attraction of the tour.
Thanks Better Bhutan!